Never Split The Difference - Chris Voss

Never Split The Difference - Chris Voss

Book Notes

Lessons from the the FBI's leading hostage negotiator. This book changed how I approach everyday negotiations, from debates with friends to business discussions.

Table of contents

Everything is a negotiation, and Chris Voss is about as qualified as it gets to teach you how. He was the top hostage negotiator for the FBI. When they say ‘bring out the big guns, someone’s been taken hostage,' his phone rings.

In his book, Never Split the Difference, Chris posed two questions to ask in every negotiation:

  1. How do I discover what's motivating them?
  2. How do I give them the illusion that they're in control?

Here are the tools, techniques and mindset to answer these questions.

What's the goal?

A great negotiator understands the needs of their counterpart; these may be monetary, emotional or psychological. The key to uncovering these is to build an open dialogue, where they feel safe to talk, and then talk some more. As you begin to understand the real problem, you can sell a vision of it that leaves your proposal as the perfect solution.

The second approach, which is my favourite, is to empower them. We don't present them with our solution, but instead provide them with jigsaw pieces. When they place these together, they convince themselves that the solution you want is their own idea.

Discover their motivations

Discovering their motivations relies on empathy and rapport. Chris provided some brilliant approaches to cultivating this environment, but before we get into them, we need to talk about delivery. Tone and timing are key to these techniques. If you use them at the right time with an inquisitive, non-judgemental tone, they'll serve you well.


This is the art of insinuating similarity. We repeat the last 3-5 words of their sentence, inviting them to elaborate further on it. This works very well when preceded by "I'm sorry, [insert 3-5 words here]".

This is best seen in action, watch Chris explain mirrors here.


This is a powerful way to acknowledge emotions, without appearing confrontational, and validating that you understand their perspective. After the label, pause. They will fill the silence, building more detail as to why they feel this way. Labels usually look like this:

It seems like ______ is valuable to you. It seems like you don’t like ______. It seems like you value _______. It seems like _______ makes it easier. It seems like you’re reluctant to _______.

By labelling an emotion—applying rational words to a fear—you disrupt the raw intensity of it.

Accusation audit

List the worst things that the other party could say about you, saying them before the other person can, this allows you to stop negative dynamics before they take root. Embrace your inner comedian. Most comedians rely on some form of self-deprecating humour, it makes us appear more self-aware and relatable.

Whilst labelling focuses on how you view your counterpart, the audit targets how they may view you. We build trust with them through mutual understanding.


There's nothing worse than people who ask a question then don't listen to the reply. As soon as I see they're not listening, I just stop speaking. A few gems I picked up from this book for listening were:

  1. Don’t get wrapped up in the other side’s position (what they’re asking for) but instead focus on their interests (why they’re asking for it) so that you can find what they really want.
  2. Separate the person (the emotion) from the problem. Looking objectively at the situation can help us to see more clearly; emotion can cloud judgement.
  3. In medicine, my favourite tool to show a patient I've been listening is a summary. Summarise what the person has said back to them. Chris says that to evaluate whether you're doing this well, you need to look for the response: "that's right".

To summarise what we have so far, to uncover our counterpart's motivations, we can use mirroring, labelling and accusation audits to build rapport. As it builds, we need to separate the person from the emotion; focusing on why they are here, rather than what they're asking for. If you were to give me that summary, I'd say: "that's right".

Creating the illusion of control

In the past, when I imagined a successful negotiator, I'd picture a dominating presence overpowering their counterpart with better arguments and reasoning. This book massively changed my perspective. We want them to feel in control, while we pull their metaphorical strings. Pinocchio style. Here's how we can do that.

No-orientated questions

When we're unsure or uncomfortable, we gravitate towards no. When a telephone salesman calls and says 'do you have a free moment?' My answer is always the same. No. Chris uses this to his advantage, he phrases the questions so that 'no' moves the conversation in the direction that he wants. The telephone salesman could rephrase to:

"Is now a bad time to talk?"

Calibrated questions

When somebody makes an offer that doesn't even come near to what you want, how do you respond? 'F*** no' is what you'd like to say, but that probably won't end well. This is where the calibrated question helps you out. The main one that Chris discusses is 'how am I supposed to do that?'

These questions work because instead of you providing the 15 reasons why their offer is unreasonable, you allow them to come to this realisation themselves. At work, if you're asked to do a 7 day job in 12 hours, try a calibrated question. If they can respond with a clear plan of how they would complete the task in the time, then you can probably do it. However, if their request is unreasonable, this question allows them to come to this realisation themselves.

7-38-55% rule

"7% of a message is based on the words, while 38% comes from the tone of voice and 55% from the speaker’s body language and face."

This one is more about understanding control, rather than providing it to them. Read all of the signs, and look for inconsistencies between the messages from each of these modalities. If your counterpart isn't comfortable, or is lying, there may be a disconnect between their body language and their words.

If the person responds with "I," "me," "my," the power probably lies elsewhere. If they respond with “we,” “they,” and “them,” it’s more likely you’re dealing directly with a savvy decision maker keeping their options open. By sharing the responsibility with their organisation, or group, it allows them to hold their position on stronger foundations.

The real power of this book

Why read the book if you've just read many of the skills he teaches in it? The stories. His stories from hostage negotiations allow you to see how these tools and techniques are used to de-escalate high-pressure situations, and ultimately to save lives. Through seeing them in context, it helps you to remember them, and to see how you could apply these tools to your everyday life.

Splitting the difference is wearing one black and one brown shoe; don’t compromise.